The Alma Mater board game is a medium to heavyweight euro game for 2-4 players. It takes 2-3 hours to play and, due to its complexity, is suggested for gamers aged 12 years and up. This is definitely a game for experienced gamers.
Thematically, you’re each playing as the headmaster of a 15th Century university. Attracting lecturers and students while publishing books to (you guessed it) score victory points. Mechanically, this is a worker placement game. But it is more interactive than many, thanks to each player having their own currency (their books) which become an important part of play. And the theme works nicely to help gel everything together.
Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find Alma Mater for just under £40 – which is a bargain for the amount and quality of components. In the box you’ll find a large main board and four player boards; 180 cards; 150-ish cardboard tokens; 44 wooden pieces, and 120 cool little plastic books. The box also has a handy dandy plastic insert, and overall the art and presentation are top notch.
Teaching the Alma Mater board game
The Alma Mater board game is quite a tough teach. It’s one of those euro games where you really need to know everything before you start, as all the options and routes to points can be available from turn one. But I’m not going to go into detail here, as there are plenty of good rules videos available. I found the rulebook OK for learning the game. And it has a good set of appendix pages to cover all the game icons. But I found it a little frustrating when trying to find little rules and exceptions.
As mentioned, this is at its heart a pretty standard worker placement game. You have one (potentially two) worker spaces on your board, plus 13/10 (depending on player count) on the main board. You start with four workers, with two more available per player as the game goes on. Most spaces cost one worker for the first person to arrive, two for the second etc. But a few of the more boring spaces (get money etc) are non-competitive.
The bulk of the game sees you attracting students and lecturers to your university, while increasing the reputation of your books by rising up the research track. Both students and lecturers can give you income, special abilities and victory points. The first person to claim a particular lecturer sets the ‘price’ for them, which includes which type of book is required to trigger their ability. Students have set prices, but these vary depending on which players’ books are highest on the research track. Which is where the interactivity/clever bit comes in.
Buy the book
While there is money (ducats) in the game, each player’s books (by player colour) also work as an important currency. Rising on the reputation track (which mostly means paying books/money/VPs, or having met certain requirements) means your books will be required to get more/better students. While getting in quickly on top lecturers means your books will be needed to both collect and trigger those lecturers for other players.
Your own player board action/s allow you to buy your own books. These can either be kept for payment, or put up for sale in your shop (placed on your player board). So the more people need your books, the more profit you can make. Especially as players have to first buy any available books from you, not the bank, when they need them. This is a key element of the game and really makes it stand out from the crowd.
After six rounds the game ends and the majority of scoring takes place. This is very much a point salad euro, with pretty much everything scoring endgame points. For example, you’ll be scoring for students; lecturers (by type); lecturers (amount) multiplied by your position on the research track; etc etc. But luckily all the ways you’ll score are listed on your player board. And, of course, most points wins.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: Alma Mater is a very well designed and produced euro game, as we’ve come to expect from Eggertspiele. And the clever book currency mechanism elevates it from average to excellent. But personally, despite the excellent artwork and integrated theme, I failed to connect with the game emotionally. For me it has a little too much ‘converting stuff into other stuff’ going on to leave room for a soul. Which I need to make a game a genuine keeper.
- The thinker: What an excellent game. Once the long teach was over, I found myself quickly coming to terms with the mechanisms. But like most complex games, you really need to play through and score once for it all to come together. I’ve seen players do a bit of everything and win, and others succeed by concentrating more on a single path – which is always a good sign. While there is enough variety in the cards (if not the students – see below) to make each game feel different.
- The trasher: The books in Alma Mater add a clever level of interaction between players. But it really couldn’t be done in a more ‘euro’ way! That’s not a criticism – but it really isn’t for me. Sure, there is some competition for worker placement spaces. But with basic planning you should always be able to do what you need to – its more about doing things efficiently. So while I recognise this as a good game, its not one I’ll be coming back to.
- The dabbler: I love the presentation! The art style and component quality is definitely above the average, especially for a euro style game. But wow, it has a real learning cliff! Everything interacts with everything else – and there are a lot of bits! And so many icons. You even get to choose your own starting resources, which is hard when you don’t know what is going on lol. It could’ve done with a standard set up for that, for beginners. It’s the kind of game I’d have to play very regularly to keep in my head – and I don’t really want to.
The Alma Mater board game is a tough teach. Made all the worse by a huge array of unconvincing icons. It takes ages to set up, and then you’re probably looking at about an hour of rules. And then you’ll be in and out of the rulebook the whole game looking up cards in the appendix. Which is crazy, as the following week (with the same players) we had the whole game done in about 90 minutes. But in this day and age, with so much choice out there, first plays can make or break a game.
Representation has never been more important. But unfortunately, here, in terms of ethnicity, you’ll find an all-white cast. A few of the professors and students are female. So it wouldn’t have been hard for them to add some people of colour too. Because this is not a game that relies on its use of theme in a true historical context, beyond naming the chancellor (not professor) cards. You’d hope this was simply an oversight. But the outcry on this topic has certainly proven this is a topic publishers need to take seriously.
The two-player experience
Due to the amount of interaction required in the game, the two-player rules introduce a third ‘dummy’ player. This works OK, as it only involves a small amount of set up each round (a few cards). But (for me) it very much diminishes the experience compared to playing with three or four. This is always tricky in a game where interaction is key.
Another issue is the lack of variety of students. You use the same 16 types in each game, which is odd as everything else has loads of setup variety. Clearly recognising the mistake, they’ve released a mini expansion (for less than £10) that adds four new ones. But even at this price, it seems steep.
Finally, some commenters have been disappointed having come to Alma Mater from its spiritual cousin, popular euro game Coimbra. The games share some of the design team as well as art style and theming. But this is definitely a more complex game. So if you liked Coimbra, but felt it was the edge of your enjoyment in terms of difficulty, you may want to give Alma Mater a miss (it is rated 3.8 (vs 3.3) for complexity at Board Game Geek).
Conclusion: Alma Mater board game
Alma Mater is a very good mid-to-heavyweight euro game. It nicely blends its theme into familiar mechanisms, while introducing a nice twist to make it feel fresh. While it also looks fantastic and offers solid value for money. So if heavier games are your thing, I’d definitely give it a try. But personally, the thought of teaching it again brings me out in hives. And while I enjoyed my plays, I didn’t fall in love with alma Mater. And nowadays a game has to get over that line to stay in my collection.